Clijsters and Henin's pincer threat

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The Independent Online

Belgium, in the form of Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters, advanced upon the Wimbledon women's title yesterday in the same pincer movement that annexed the French Open earlier this year.

A familiar familial obstacle now stands between them and the cherished Venus Rosewater Dish, however - team Williams. The third-seeded Henin-Hardenne, a 6-2, 6-2 winner over Russia's emerging 18-year-old Svetlana Kuznetsova, faces the defending champion, Serena, whom she beat in controversial circumstances en route to winning her first Grand Slam title at Roland Garros.

Clijsters, whose four previous matches had taken just over three hours in total, had to endure a relative marathon in defeating Silvia Farina Elia, of Italy, 5-7, 6-0, 6-1, thus earning a meeting with Serena's sister, Venus, seeded two places below her at No 4.

Unlike the men's tournament, the women's singles has followed predicted form. But Clijsters, who has swiftly recovered her equilibrium after losing the French Open final to her compatriot, had to endure an unpredictable misfortune during a first-set change-over while 5-4 up when she was stung on her stomach by a bee, something that made her subsequent, albeit temporary lapse, more understandable.

"At 5-4 I felt something,'' she said. "I hit it off and saw it ... I didn't know whether I should call the trainer. I didn't know what to do. It did hurt ... Even now I still feel it.''

Having been stung by a bee, however, Clijsters soon began to float like a butterfly.

The first set had taken 42 minutes. Exactly 42 minutes later she was in the semi-final, having restricted her increasingly bemused opponent to one game out of 13, concluding the humiliation with a finale of three successive aces. Take that, and that, and that.

Lleyton Hewitt, watching from the gallery in a blue cap and sunglasses, looked relieved that his girlfriend had not provided the 2003 Championships with another upset following his own opening-day defeat as defending champion to a man ranked 203rd in the world.

Farina Elia had the appearance of a woman in shock afterwards. "I always believed I couldn't win this match,'' said the 31-year-old in an interesting variation of a time-honoured sportsperson's line. "I played my best game in the first set, but suddenly at the beginning of the second set I lost my nerves a little bit. I think she raised her level then. I couldn't handle it.''

Henin-Hardenne took two minutes less than an hour to dispose of the Russian who had eliminated her own talented but noisy 16-year-old compatriot, Maria Sharapova.

It was a thrilling, sustained demonstration of power, technique and intent that offered the ideal preparation for tomorrow's match against the woman who has established herself as the world's leading grass-court player.

"I have the semi-final in mind,'' Henin-Hardenne said. "If I wanted to be aggressive against a player like Serena I knew I had to be aggressive against a player like Kuznetsova.

"Clay is better for me because I have more time to organise my game. But I believe, if I am tactically good, grass is my best surface.''

She denies that there was any lingering ill-feeling with her next opponent over the acrimonious French Open semi-final, when Williams asked for a let to be played as Henin-Hardenne had put her hand up when she was about to serve. "Just half an hour ago we talked in the locker-room,'' Henin-Hardenne said. "We are probably going to have a long career together and it is better that we are just professional, that we are colleagues. There are no negative feelings at all.''

All, it seems, is now sweetness and Rosewater. We shall see for ourselves tomorrow.

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